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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: 2009, A Remarkable Year For NIMH

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From the extraordinary funding opportunities presented by the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) to significant new investments in research and resource infrastructure — this has been a remarkable year for our Institute. I would like to reflect with you on how the work of 2009 has prepared us for the year ahead.

In a typical year, NIMH invests $180M in new research grants. The addition of $366M from the Recovery Act funding for 2009-2010 enabled us to support high-risk, innovative research that will focus our science in exciting new directions. With these funds, the Institute was able to jumpstart many of the goals of the NIMH Strategic Plan, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee’s (IACC) Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research, the NIH AIDS Strategic Plan, and the National Advisory Mental Health Council’s report on research training (PDF file, 48 pages). We are also using Recovery Act funds to augment multidisciplinary training and faculty recruitment programs, nurturing the development of investigators focused on areas of biomedical research relevant to NIMH.

Recovery Act funds allowed us, in partnership with other NIH Institutes, to launch the single largest funding initiative to address autism spectrum disorders (ASD). NIH awarded over $65 million to support more than 50 ASD research grants just from this RFA, plus additional funds from other Recovery Act initiatives. As I’sve said previously, these studies currently hold the best promise of revealing what causes autism, how it might be prevented, what treatments are effective, and how service needs change across the lifespan — revelations noted in the IACC Strategic Plan as critically important to improving the lives of people with ASD and their families.

In 2009, the Institute also made huge investments in research infrastructure that will serve the scientific community for years to come. For example, much of the data from the ASD studies will be available to other researchers through the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR). The use of NDAR is likely to advance the understanding of ASD heterogeneity to a far greater degree and at a more rapid pace than would be possible through any single project. Another significant infrastructure investment is the Human Connectome Project (HCP). In November 2009, the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research launched a $30 million project that will use cutting-edge brain imaging technologies to map the circuitry of the healthy adult human brain. By systematically collecting brain imaging data from hundreds of people, the HCP will yield insight into the variations in brain connections and how these connections underlie brain function, opening up new lines of inquiry for human neuroscience. A third exemplary infrastructure investment is the Transcriptional Brain Atlas of Human Brain Development. Using Recovery Act funds, NIMH is expediting creation of the Atlas in order to map when and where genes are expressed in the brain throughout the course of development. This initiative aligns strongly with the NIMH Strategic Plan's objective to chart mental illness trajectories to determine when, where, and how to intervene.

This year also marks the launch of a research partnership that will address a pressing public health concern—suicide and mental health issues among our military personnel. The Study to Assess Risk and Resilience of Service-members (Army-STARRS) is a collaborative effort between NIMH and the U.S. Army. The largest mental health study of military personnel ever undertaken, this project has been called a Framingham study for the Army. Like the Framingham approach to cardiovascular disease, Army-STARRS will identify risk and protective factors for suicide among soldiers. The study will also provide a science base for effective and practical interventions to reduce suicide rates and address associated mental health problems in all populations.

Finally, I would like to highlight a research project launched this year that seeks to fundamentally change the way schizophrenia is treated: the Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE) project. The RAISE project, which is also supported through Recovery Act funds, will develop and test innovative and coordinated intervention approaches in the early stages of the illness when symptoms may be most responsive to treatment. The study is designed to alter the long-term disability that can result from schizophrenia and help ensure that people with the disease can lead productive, independent lives. Importantly, the interventions being tested will be designed from the outset to be readily adopted in real-world health care settings and quickly put into practice.

These impressive efforts in research and infrastructure investment, development, and dissemination prepare the Institute to advance boldly into 2010. Ours is a critical mission, based on rigorous science and aimed at an urgent and growing public health challenge. I am grateful to my dedicated colleagues at NIMH who have worked to make 2009 our most productive, in terms of funding, in the 60 plus years of this Institute. The coming year will bring new challenges, when research will increasingly be asked to address the most pressing questions about mental illness. We look forward to making a difference for individuals, families, clinicians, and policy makers as we support the best research to transform the understanding and treatment of mental disorders.